Virtue isn’t “natural” it’s a “craft”

In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle is considering the question, “What is the highest of all the goods pursued in action” (1095a15)? In order to answer this question, we must begin with things that we know (1095b). He proceeds to answer the question by considering and ruling out what vulgar people and socially cultivated people regard as the highest goods to be pursued. These things are not sufficient for Aristotle, as they are not self-sufficient. They are transitory and fragile. He states that “the best good is apparently something complete” (1096a25) and he understands the best good to be happiness, as this is the thing we aim at in all our activities and investigations. He says, “we regard something as self-sufficient when all by itself it makes a life choiceworthy and lacking nothing; and that is what we think happiness does” (1097b10).

Having established this link between the highest good and the aim of happiness, he begins to consider what this looks like in relation to human existence. Happiness for us needs to go beyond simply living (as we share this with plants) and it needs to go beyond merely perceiving (as we share this with animals). He defines the uniquely human function as “a certain kind of life [namely] the soul’s activity and actions that express reason” and when this is done well the human being is expressing “proper virtue” (1098a15). The specifically human good “turns out to be the soul’s activity that expresses virtue” (1098a15).

However, as it is manifestly the case that not all human beings aim at this highest good, and that even amongst those who do aim at it there are degrees of excellence, virtue cannot be ‘natural’ in us. Rather it is a craft. He states, “Virtues, by contrast, we acquire, just as we acquire crafts, by having previous activated them” (1103a30). It is not automatic that virtues are acquired in a good way any more than it is automatic that a harpist or builder become excellent at their craft. The same activity or situation may result in different states of character, good and bad (1103b20). So virtue is a craft, and thus it is, like all other crafts, dependent upon being taught and modelled for us properly so that we may develop in a good way and attain excellence. We must attain the right sort of habit “right from our youth” so that we “display the right activities” in the pursuit of happiness (1103b20). This involves “correct education” (1104b10) and “corrective treatment” (1104b15). And more than this, it is not enough for us simply to do virtuous acts, but we must be in a right state while doing them. We must know what we are doing, decide to do it, and do them from “a firm and unchanging state” which is to say, consistently and not as a result of external pressure (1105a30; Aquinas’ Commentary 283). Simply put, “none of the virtues of character arises in us naturally” (1103a15).

If virtue was natural to us, human life would look very different. First of all, things in us by nature cannot be changed “into another condition” by way of habit (1103a20). There would be no hope of substantial improvement in our conduct if the virtues are natural to us. Though our natures have the capacity to feel various emotions and passions (1106a) and enable us to acquire virtue, we are not naturally virtuous in the same way a stone naturally moves downwards or flame tends upwards. Or, to put it another way, our capacity to feel fear does not naturally result in courage (or cowardice or recklessness). Further, if the virtues were natural to us, we would be born with the capacity AND in due course necessarily display the activity. For example, we are born with the capacity to see, and in due course, our eyesight develops. Aristotle states the obvious in saying “we did not acquire [sight] by frequent seeing…” (1103a30). Neither do we simply acquire actual virtue by acting in accordance with an innate capacity for virtue.

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